TORONTO — With a deadly virus upending modern civilization, it might seem like director David Cronenberg would be eagerly drafting a twisted cinematic vision inspired by society’s collective anxiety.
But like most of us, the Canadian filmmaker is stuck in the mundanity of daily existence.
Instead of writing, Cronenberg says he’s often distracted by emails and texts, spending time with family before venturing outside for groceries. In the midst of a pandemic, the cryptic gatekeeper of unforgettable body-horror classics such as “Dead Ringers” and the 1986 version of “The Fly,” isn’t bursting with new ideas during COVID.
“I don’t find inspiration in it at all, but I do find it fascinating,” the director said in a phone call from his Toronto home.
“In my 77 years I haven’t experienced anything quite like it.”
Cronenberg’s occasional socially distanced strolls around the neighbourhood have given him ample time to reflect on his provocative 1996 drama “Crash,” which recently underwent a stunning 4K restoration.
The super high-definition version screens in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal cinemas starting on Friday before expanding to other Canadian cities.
Adapted from J. G. Ballard’s controversial 1973 novel, the film traces a subculture of people who find a sexual energy in car accidents, and frequently act on their impulses in pursuit of pleasure.
When it debuted, “Crash” agitated film censorship boards across the world with its vivid sex scenes and was so disliked by media mogul Ted Turner that he stalled the film’s U.S. debut for months before giving it an unenthusiastic release.
Cronenberg reflected on the legacy of his divisive film in an interview with The Canadian Press, including his awkward encounter with director Francis Ford Coppola at the Cannes Film Festival.
CP: The controversy surrounding “Crash” started at Cannes where your film won a Special Jury Prize. Coppola, the jury president that year, described your work as original, daring and audacious, but he went out of his way to note that some people on the jury didn’t support the recognition. Did you ever find out who was against it?
Cronenberg: Coppola was totally against it.
CP: Was it just him?
Cronenberg: I think he was the primary one. When I’m asked why (“Crash”) got this Special Jury Award, well, I think it was the jury’s attempt to get around the Coppola negativity, because they had the power to create their own award without the president’s approval. And that’s how they did it, but it was Coppola who was certainly against it.
CP: Did you talk to Coppola about it after Cannes?
Cronenberg: The strange thing is that I’ve run into him several times at various festivals. Always the first thing he says is: “Remember, we gave you this award.” I swore to myself that the next time he said that, I was going to remind him that he was not amongst those who wanted to give (“Crash”) a prize. In fact, during the final closing night ceremony he wouldn’t hand me the award. He had someone else hand it to me. He wouldn’t do it himself.
CP: That sounds a little petty.
Cronenberg: Yeah, I thought so. Because later I was president of the (Cannes) jury as well. You always end up with awards that maybe you don’t think are justified, but your team jury members do. You have to be gracious about it. I don’t think he was very gracious.
CP: Looking back on the release of “Crash” nearly 24 years ago, it’s easy to forget just how much intense negativity this film received both in the press and with some film exhibitors. A theatre owner in Norway refused to screen the movie, tabloid newspapers in the United Kingdom regularly attacked the film and pushed for a ban, and it was edited into a somewhat nonsensical R-rated version for Blockbuster Video in the U.S. What was it like to see your film generate so much pushback?
Cronenberg: It was terrifically exciting, and a lot of fun, on one level. And then on the other level, you have made a film that you want people to see, and to have sensors jump on it in every possible country. It basically reminds you that you don’t get anything for free. You have to fight for everything. And you can’t expect to be just given carte blanche, ever. If I needed reminding, I got it then.
CP: In a video introduction on the 4K edition you suggest the film might not feel as shocking today as it did in 1996. But would a film this divisive even be financed now?
Cronenberg: I doubt it. Part of it is that everything is so politicized now, whether it’s politically correct or its opposite. It’s a tough time to make a movie that’s extreme in any way. Everybody’s walking on eggshells, for one thing. Given the Trump administration’s success of politicizing absolutely every possible thing on the planet, including grass and trees, it does make it difficult to make something that’s truly original, truly extreme, or both.
CP: You’re frequently asked if you’re retired, partly because it’s been over five years since your last film “Map to the Stars.” But considering the pandemic, are you planning any future projects?
Cronenberg: I’ve never been officially retired. There was a time when I just wasn’t interested in filmmaking anymore, but I’ve sort of come back. Part of it was the whole Netflix phenomenon. I’ve found streaming series quite intriguing because suddenly you have a more novelistic approach to storytelling. That’s brought me back to being interested in cinema of some kind, whether it’s TV series or another feature, I don’t know. I do have a few projects, but who knows if they’ll ever get made because of COVID or just the normal problem of financing difficult films.
CP: It seems like securing money for anything that isn’t a superhero film was difficult even before COVID, but with the pandemic the hurdles around safety might be even harder to overcome.
Cronenberg: Companies like Netflix have hugely deep pockets so they could perhaps afford to isolate an entire village in Iceland, for example, and have everybody tested twice a day. Most film productions can’t handle that. For an independent film to tack on like another 30 per cent of the budget just for COVID is a non-starter. I think the immediate effect of will be to filter out interesting, difficult films in favour of more mainstream, big-budget films — and that’s assuming even those could get made. Nobody can get COVID insurance. What company can afford to take that gamble? You know, the lead actor gets COVID, it’s over, the movie is done.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 11, 2020.
— This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
David Friend, The Canadian Press